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Memoir: Shopping for Christian the lion

In their new book, Anthony Bourke and John Rendall share the story of Christian, the lion that starred in one of the most viewed Internet videos of 2008. In this excerpt, they write about buying the boisterous lion cub in 1969 at the pet department of Harrods in London.
/ Source: TODAY books

In 2008, an extraordinary two-minute film clip appeared on YouTube and immediately became an international phenomenon, garnering tens of millions of views and proving to be one of the most watched Internet videos of the year. The grainy footage captures the amazing and highly moving reunion of two young men and their pet lion, Christian, one year after they had left him in Africa to introduce him into his rightful home in the wild. “A Lion Called Christian” tells the story of how Anthony Bourke and John Rendall bought the boisterous lion cub in the pet department of Harrods. An excerpt.

Chapter one: A lion with a price tag
No zoo is complete without lions. The small zoo at Ilfracombe in Devon on the south coast of England was no exception, and the lion and lioness were a particularly handsome pair. The lion had been bought from the Rotterdam Zoo in Holland, and the lioness had come from the Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem. They had their first litter on August 12, 1969: four healthy cubs, one male and three females. Nine weeks later, with summer over and no more holiday crowds to attract, two female cubs were sent to an animal dealer and were subsequently bought by a circus. The remaining female and male were bought by Harrods, the Knightsbridge department store, and sent to London by train. The four cubs seemed destined, as their parents were, for a lifetime of frustration.

Three months before the cubs were born, we had left Australia for the first time, uncertain but optimistic. We had both graduated from university and had had a variety of jobs with no clear career path at that stage. We headed to London as many young Australians had before us, and well-known examples include the satirist Barry Humphries, journalist and broadcaster Clive James, academic and writer Germaine Greer, artists Sidney Nolan, Brett Whitely, and Martin Sharp, social commentator Richard Neville, and more recently, Kylie Minogue. Some Australians traveled overland through Asia and the Middle East, which is difficult if not impossible these days. We traveled independently for several months, but met up unexpectedly in London in late November 1969. Neither of us is a conscientious sightseer, but one day in an unusual burst of enthusiasm we visited, among other tourist destinations, the Tower of London. A suitable contrast, we decided, would be our first visit to Harrods. We were aware of Harrods’ boast that they could provide anything at a price, of course. A friend had once inquired about a camel and been asked, “Would that be with one hump or two?” But Harrods seemed to have extended themselves beyond our imagination when, on wandering into their zoo on the second floor, we discovered two lion cubs in a small cage between the Siamese kittens and the old English sheepdogs. A lion cub with a price tag was not an easy thought to assimilate. The cubs were proving to be a successful drawing card for the Christmas shoppers, with the prospect of becoming the Christmas present for the person who already had everything.

We had not thought about lions before. Of course, we had seen them in zoos, but this was as far as our interest and knowledge extended. Neither of us had even read Joy Adamson’s 1960 book Born Free, the story of Elsa the lioness who had been found as a cub, raised and rehabilitated back into the wild by Joy and her husband George Adamson, who was a game warden with the Kenyan Wildlife Department. We sympathized with the cubs, for despite the efforts of the staff, they were incessantly disturbed by intrigued shoppers, yet we had to restrain the same urge within ourselves. Each person demanded a response.

The female snarled in an alarming manner and people were satisfied, but her brother pretended none of us existed. He was irresistible, and we sat, enchanted, beside their cage for hours.

John: “Why don’t we buy him?”

Ace: “I’ve already named him Christian.”

We found out much later that the staff had named him Marcus, a handsome masculine name, but Christian seemed to suit him, and we liked the irony or joke about Christians being fed to the lions in Roman times, which was also a reminder of the danger to which we could be exposing ourselves and the people around us.

We intuitively knew that we were both serious, and a curious excitement began to grow. Even if it was only for a couple of months, surely we could offer him a better life than this, and try and ensure a better future for him. Or was it that we just wanted to take Christian away from everyone else and have him to ourselves? Neither of us had ever fantasised or dreamed about owning an exotic pet, but he was completely irresistible.

Suddenly our lives were to be incomplete without a lion cub. An impractical idea for two young Australians visiting Europe, but at least we could allow ourselves the luxury of investigating the possibility of buying him. We inquired if he was still for sale. The female had been sold, but the male was still available for two hundred and fifty guineas, equivalent in 2009 to three thousand five hundred English pounds. This was a vast sum to us, but undaunted, we nonchalantly agreed that it seemed a very reasonable price. The assistant at the zoo suggested we speak to the Harrods buyer. He was, she pointedly warned us, interviewing any prospective purchasers very thoroughly, as Harrods believed it was important the lions did not fall into irresponsible hands.

We returned the next morning looking far more respectable, with our hair skillfully flattened, and wearing the tweed sports coats our parents, very perceptively, had insisted would be useful abroad, but until now had been lying untouched at the bottom of our suitcases. We succeeded, with the help of a few tiny white lies and our enthusiasm, in convincing Roy Hazle, the buyer for Harrods, that we would be responsible guardians/foster parents for a lion. Now, when Harrods was prepared to part with him, we had the first option to buy Christian.

Slideshow

A lion's tale

The life of Christian, the 'hugging' lion who captured the hearts of millions in a memorable web video.

Everything up until this point seemed very natural and straightforward. We had gone shopping and had seen a lion that we liked and now wanted to buy, but could not take delivery for about three weeks. We shared a small flat on the King’s Road in Chelsea, above the shop where we had both been offered work, and in all respects could not have been in a worse position to own any animal, least of all a lion. We spent days fruitlessly visiting estate agents, looking for a basement flat with a garden “for our dog.” It seemed pointless being truthful with them when it was the landlords we would really have to contend with. We were becoming very disheartened, so we decided to advertise in The Times on the assumption that the courageous or eccentric landlord we had been unable to find would probably be a reader of this newspaper.

LION CUB, 2 young men seek suitable garden/roof, flat/house London. 352-7252.

The only responses we received were a flood of telephone calls from other newspapers, prematurely wanting to photograph the lion.

In desperation, our last chance was to persuade the owners of the shop where he worked, Joe Harding and John Barnardiston, and Jennifer-Mary Taylor, that in addition to us as employees, their business really needed a lion cub living on the premises, particularly as the shop was called Sophistocat. John Barnardiston was cautious by nature, being English, and fortunately he was in Switzerland at the time. Joe Harding was born in Kenya and had owned a variety of animals, and proved to be no opposition. And Jennifer-Mary was enthusiastic. It was decided that Christian would live in the basement of the shop, and it was to be a surprise for John on his return from Switzerland. As we would be living above the shop and working there, it seemed an ideal arrangement, for we could devote all the attention to Christian we realized would be necessary. Although Sophistocat had an enormous basement, with several rooms, we also needed to find a garden for his exercise.

Fortunately we had friends living in a studio only three hundred yards from the shop, with access to a most suitable garden. Fully enclosed, and covering three quarters of an acre, it is still owned by the Moravian Church. The minister was an ardent bird watcher, but not prejudiced against extending his zoological interests, he very generously gave his permission for us to use the garden. As a result, we now felt able to assure Harrods that we could fulfill the practical requirements for owning a lion in London.

Of course, looking back from many years later, we should never have been allowed to buy a lion. We were naive about the risks and were without any insurance coverage. Since the enactment of the Endangered Species Act in 1973 in England, Harrods has no longer traded in exotic animals, and now have the Harrods “Pet Shop” as opposed to a “Zoo.” We now appreciate how purchasing wild or exotic animals only encourages further trafficking in them.

But while our excitement accelerated, we became increasingly concerned by our total ignorance of the sort of problems that faced us. We had no realistic idea to what extent a lion could be domesticated, and we were aware that we could be taking on an impossible and futile task.

We had grown up in family households that loved animals, but this did not prepare us for what lay ahead.

Ace grew up in Newcastle, a city to the north of Sydney in New South Wales, Australia. He lived on the edge of the bush, rode horses, and always had dogs as pets, although at eleven years old he found his first cat in the vacant lot next door. There were many family camping and fishing holidays to the coast and into the country.

John grew up in Bathurst, a major country town 130 miles inland from Sydney, where the family pets included a number of tough Kelpie cattle dogs, cats, and often young kangaroos that had been rescued when their mothers had either been shot as vermin or killed on the road. Rabbits were also considered vermin, and along with their predator the fox they are examples of a disastrous importation of animals that have caused huge environmental damage to indigenous species and habitats in Australia.

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At Harrods, we were told that the cubs had been handled by humans since birth, and that they both, particularly Christian, were responding to affection. He was the favorite, and appeared to have a delightful, even-tempered nature. As often as we could, we went to Harrods to play with the cubs when they were let out of their cage for an hour after closing time. We wanted to spend as much time with Christian as possible, and it would make his transition to Sophistocat and the King’s Road easier if he was familiar with us. Both cubs were excessively playful, and while it was possible to handle them, they could be quite uncontrollable at times. They had extremely sharp teeth, and claws that they had not yet learned to control, and it was difficult to avoid being scratched. Christian was definitely more accepting than his sister, and we hoped he would be less boisterous and more manageable when he was separated from her.

Roy Hazle sensibly suggested that before we made our final decision to buy Christian, we talked to Charles Bewick and Peter Bowen, who had bought a puma from Harrods the year before. The puma was called Margot after a family friend, Dame Margot Fonteyn, the prima ballerina. She was now fully grown, and although she seemed to have adjusted to life in London, we never really felt at ease with her. We were assured that she had an impeccable behavior record, and because Peter and Charles had been able to devote considerable time to her, she was sufficiently domesticated to coexist quite happily with them. It was encouraging, for they had obviously found the whole experience enjoyable and much less complicated than they had anticipated.

We realized it was unlikely that we would be able to have Christian for more than about six months in London, and he would rapidly outgrow any environment we could provide. We were determined to make these months as happy and as safe as we possibly could for him, but was it fair if he was then to go back to a zoo? Surely this would just make it harder for him and the whole venture a marvelous indulgence for us. We decided to visit Longleat Safari Park in Wiltshire in the English countryside to see if it would be suitable for Christian. The park had opened in 1966, a partnership between the Marquis of Bath and Jimmy Chipperfield, the circus owner. This was the first safari park to open outside of Africa, and it was innovative in the care of animals but controversial at the time, as neighbors feared the lions might escape. We were aware that when it had first opened, basic assumptions about lions had proved incorrect, and the lions had suffered casualties. Now, with the park extending to over one hundred acres, and the lions divided into prides, the park owners appeared to have created the best living conditions for lions in England. Roger Cawley, the manager, said he would be delighted to take Christian when he outgrew us.

Not only were we now in a position to have Christian, but we could also ensure that he would not spend the rest of his life in a zoo or in a circus. But still we both had very serious doubts. Were we really prepared to take on this enormous, binding responsibility? We could not ignore the fact that it was a lion, a basically wild animal and the most powerful predator after man, that we were bringing into our lives and the lives of the people around us. We knew that a workable human-lion relationship was not an impossibility, but we could not be certain that we would attain this with Christian. He was now four months old and growing very quickly. Soon he would be capable of inflicting considerable damage. But while one of us talked of our recklessness and the risks, the other spoke of the unforgettable and exciting experience that lay ahead. What finally united us was the staunch opposition from most people we knew to the idea of buying Christian. Unwittingly, they intensified our determination to accept a challenge we might otherwise have resisted. Our parents were no doubt horrified, but only cautioned us against a decision “you might regret” and said that “it will be difficult giving Christian up.” It was a step into the unknown. We were young, we were looking for fun and adventure, and we had left Australia, our parents, and some of our inhibitions behind. It was the tail end of the historic 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s, times of great social change, optimism, and opportunities.

On December 15, 1969, we received a telephone call to say we could collect Christian unexpectedly a few days early because Christian and his sister had escaped into the adjoining carpet department in the middle of the night and destroyed some goatskin rugs that were part of a Christmas display. We collected Christian the next day, walking him out through the staff exit on a leash. The staff waved good-bye, no doubt relieved that their responsibilities were over. With Christian sitting majestically and deceptively still on the back seat of the car, we drove off toward the King’s Road, extremely happy and nervously excited, but with an unvoiced suspicion and fear that we had committed ourselves to something that could prove just too big for us.

Reprinted from “A Lion Called Christian” by Anthony Bourke and John Rendall. Copyright © 2009 Anthony Bourke and John Rendall. Published by Broadway Books, a division of Random House, Inc.